On a cool September evening in 1943 a large group of soldiers calmly made their way back to base to gather Tommy guns, ammunition and bayonets. Then they put themselves into formation and marched the mile back into town three-a-breast; the sound of their army-issue boots hitting the country road is something witnesses remember to this day. It as if an ‘entire company’ of men was moving through the night, it was said later. This band of brothers was ready for the fight of its life – only it wasn’t the official enemy they had in their sights because unbelievably this was happening not in mainland Nazi-occupied Europe, but on the British home front and the soldiers were American. They stopped at the Cornish town of Launceston’s war memorial when they found a cluster of military policemen chatting besides two US army jeeps. A few words were enough to trigger an all-American gunfight leaving two soldiers with legs mashed-up, shop windows shattered, vehicles bullet-ridden and the reputation of the US Army in tatters. The sensational court martial that followed captivated the nation, making headline news in Britain and America and triggering alarm bells in Whitehall and Washington. Why? Despite the best efforts of the US Army to hide the fact, the inconvenient truth was that this was a unit of African American soldiers taking up arms against those who policed them.
An American Uprising in Second World War England: Mutiny in the Duchy is the first-time telling of this extraordinary story and has been painstakingly put together by Kate Werran after extensive digging in the archives. Army bosses wanted to bury this story because they were frightened by what it said about racism in the segregated US Army, the general sympathy most ordinary Brits felt for African American soldiers and the hefty strain this put on the ‘special relationship’ in the run up to D-Day. Firstly, they tried to outlaw the reporting of race in the trial – an attempt foiled by a plucky Daily Mirror journalist who pointed out in the opening minutes that this was already a matter of public knowledge. Next, they banned the reporting of the verdict itself – so no-one – not even the defendants themselves knew whether they were guilty or innocent as they marched out of court to the jaunty strains of a military band that final day.
Three thousand miles across the Atlantic, it mirrored and bolstered a fast-accelerating civil rights movement. At home it caused Churchill himself ‘grave anxiety’ while refracting an extraordinary truth about the real state of Anglo-American relations. This story disrupts our own view of ourselves in 1943 by revealing surprisingly high levels of British civilian and soldier support for black servicemen, mainly at the expense of white GIs. By breathing new life into this lost and now found story trial, the book reveals how Britain reacted to soldiers of the Jim Crow army when they came to stay.
An American Uprising in Second World War England: Mutiny in the Duchy was published by Pen & Sword on May 13.
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